Saturday, April 30, 2016

Self-Proclaimed Iran Expert Continues to Get Iran Election Predictions Wrong

Meir Javedanfar (Image: RT)

There's an apocryphal saying, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, that goes, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

There's another one, not attributed to Twain, that goes, "The only predictable thing about Iranian politics is that it's unpredictable."

Nevertheless, despite these phony aphorisms, many of those who claim expertise on the machinations of Iranian politics and are often loudest in voicing in their opinions in the media make a habit of confidently prognosticating - to the point of hubris - about who will win when Iranians go to the polls to elect their presidents, parliamentarians, and other assorted representatives.

And, inevitably, they're almost always wrong.

There are plenty of examples. For instance, prior to the June 2013 election that saw moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's president, the neoconservative editors of The Washington Post declared that "Mr. Rouhani, who has emerged as the default candidate of Iran's reformists, will not be allowed to win."

As if by a miracle, following the vote and Rouhani's election, the Post suddenly had it all figured out, declaring that "there was good reason" why Khamenei "chose to accept [Rouhani's] victory."

Similarly, Iranian-born Israeli commentator Meir Javedanfar predicted before the June 2013 vote that "it is safe to say that moderate candidate Hassan Rowhani has no chance of success," because, contrary to the potential will of the Iranian - "the supreme leader would not allow votes in [his] favour to be counted."

Once Rouhani had won, however, Javedanfar came up with all sorts of excuses as to why "the Supreme Leader allowed Rowhani's victory to stand," none of them of course having to do with the number of ballots the candidate had actually received.

Persistently committed to misinformed political analysis and refusing to learn from his egregious predictive track record, Javedanfar - who is somehow allowed to teach a course on "Contemporary Iranian Politics" at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv - decided to chime in on the February 2016 Iranian elections for Majlis (parliament) and Assembly of Experts, the official body responsible for selecting a successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Expounding in the Jewish Chronicle, a conservative British online outlet, Javedanfar wrote on February 25:
For the upcoming elections this weekend, the majority of reformist candidates who are considered President Hassan Rouhani's allies have been disqualified, as well as many of Mr Rouhani's own candidates who belong to his party. This means the chances of Mr Rouhani's 2013 presidential election allies winning a majority in the both the Parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections - which take place the at same time - are almost nil.
He added, with confidence: "In both elections, the best Mr Rouhani can hope for is to belong to a powerful minority" and predicted that "moderates will make up only 20 per cent of next Assembly," suggesting that conservatives clerics - who already made up about 77 percent of the Assembly - would pick up more seats than they already held.

This inevitability, Javedanfar explained, "may come as a shock to Western leaders who believed that the nuclear agreement would boost the position of Mr Rouhani and his moderate allies at home."

The implications of such tired, hackneyed commentary are obvious. They are meant to reinforce the already ill-informed assumptions of an audience predisposed to hostility toward Iran.

It works like this: if Iranian electoral politics are dismissed as wholly inconsequential, then it follows that change can never be made through the ballot box. Therefore, less conservative elected officials are seen as having no ability to affect policy, while more conservative politicians can be said to have no legitimacy abroad and no popular mandate at home.

So what's the point of making these claims? To question the sincerity of diplomatic agreements with Iran and doubt the commitment of the Iranian government to uphold its end of the deal - in this case, the nuclear accord signed last year between Iran and six world powers. By predicting setbacks for less reactionary elements of the Iranian state, those sympathetic to hawkish interests in both the West and Israel can convince themselves that, unless overthrown and replaced with a government deferential to the United States and Israel, the Iranian "regime" will never truly reflect the will of the Iranian people and that any attempts at what the West perceives as "moderation" or "liberalization," even by Iranian standards, will be met with a swift reprimand from up on high. Basically, this line of reasoning goes, Rouhani will be either a puppet of the most reactionary elements of the Iranian state or rendered politically impotent as punishment for defying it.

It is no surprise then that editors at the Jewish Chronicle applied an even more heavy-handed headline to Javedanfar's commentary: "Iran prepares to sideline Rouhani, the 'moderate' in which the West invested," making sure to put the word moderate in quotes, a backhanded dismissal of Rouhani's centrism and commitment to diplomacy.

There are so many errors inherent in this mode of thinking it's difficult to know where to begin challenging them. Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that describing Iranian politicians as either "reformists" or "hardliners" is reductive and inaccurate. Political alliances and allegiances often shift, coalitions are versatile, strategic and frequently opportunistic. There are hundreds of registered parties, but, as Reuters has pointed out, Iran "has no tradition of disciplined party membership or detailed party platforms."

Moreover, Iranian citizens are never considered to have similar cares, concerns, worries or priorities as their counterparts in Western nations. They are all assumed to be one issue voters - and that issue is always foreign policy; or, more specifically, whether or not they approve of their government's relationship to the United States.

The idea that this election would be effectively a public referendum on the Rouhani administration handling of nuclear negotiations was pushed relentlessly in the Western press, ignoring the fact that Iranians - like most people on the planet - often weigh domestic issues, such as the economy, more heavily than foreign policy.

Nevertheless, even if the Iran deal played an outsized role in determining voter turnout and priorities, the media routinely ignored the fact that Iranian head of state Ayatollah Khamenei has never been an enemy of diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program. Quite the contrary, the negotiations were conducted with his express support; the deal was legitimized not only by a parliamentary vote, but also by his approval. Throughout the multilateral talks and the subsequent signing of the nuclear deal, Iranian public opinion strongly supported diplomacy and approval levels for both the Rouhani administration and the deal itself remain high.

The First Round - February 26, 2016

So what wound up happening when Iranians went to the polls?

Despite the outrageous purging of many (if not most) reformist and moderate candidates from the ballots by the Guardian Council, Iran's conservative electoral vetting body, deft political maneuvering (coupled with calls for a large voter turnout) on the part of President Hassan Rouhani and allies like former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani led to a veritable rout of so-called "hardliners" in both elections.

As the Associated Press noted following the vote,
Reformists, who favor expanded social freedoms and engagement with the West, won at least 85 seats, according to final results released by the Interior Ministry and broadcast on state TV. Moderate conservatives — who split with the hard-line camp and support the nuclear deal — won 73, giving the two blocs together a majority over hard-liners in the 290-seat assembly.
The coalition of candidates endorsed by Rouhani and Rafsanjani, made up of mostly reformist and centrist candidates for parliament known as "The List of Hope" and a slate of 16 centrists and moderates running for Tehran's Assembly of Experts seats, enjoyed particularly massive success, especially in Tehran, the nation's political and economic heart.

All 30 pro-Rouhani candidates in the influential capital district won their parliamentary seats, while, as analyst Adnan Tabatabai pointed out, "all but one of the 16 Tehran seats in the 88-member Assembly of Experts will be in the hands of this alliance of Reformists, moderates and government-leaning Principlists." Moreover, two notoriously ultra-conservative clerics lost their seats in the Assembly (one was even the sitting chairman), singling a strong popular rebuke of the most hardline elements.

Reuters described the results as "an emphatic vote of confidence" for Rouhani and his policies.

Moreover, the Rouhani and Rafsanjani-endorsed list of candidates won a whopping 59 percent majority of the Assembly of Experts. This is a far cry from the paltry 20 percent prediction of Javedanfar, who boasts on his website of having "briefed officials and academics from more than 30 countries on Iran" and being "the most frequently quoted Israeli expert on Iranian affairs in the international press."

In an effort to avoid acknowledging the error of his bogus predictions, two days after the vote Javedanfar cautioned against "jump[ing] to any conclusions yet." He even dismissed the results in Tehran as unsurprising since, as he wrote on his blog, "Tehran has always been more Reformist." If this was so obvious, it's curious Javedanfar didn't include this nugget of wisdom in his pre-election commentary in the Jewish Chronicle.

Due to the large number of independent candidates (Iran does not have a formal political party system, so officials are not necessarily obligated to toe a party line or particular platform), Javedanfar noted - rightly - that "it's difficult to know to which camp some of the winning candidates belong" and that it was impossible to confidently identify which side - reformists and moderates or conservatives and principlists - would eventually walk away with a majority of parliament. Also, of the total 290 seats in the Majlis, 68 spots still required runoff elections which wouldn't happen until late April.

When the dust settled after the first round, the Rouhani-Rafsanjani alliance held 106 seats against 64 won by conservatives. Independents won 52 seats.

For Javedanfar's prediction about the near impossibility of Rouhani allies winning a majority in parliament to come to fruition, reformists and moderates would have to suffer a crushing defeat in the runoff.

But that's not quite what happened.

The Second Round - April 29, 2016

"Iranian moderates and reformists who support last year’s landmark nuclear deal have won the largest number of seats in parliament following runoff elections," reported The Associated Press, after the runoff, "marking a shift away from hard-liners and boosting moderate President Hassan Rouhani as he looks to secure a second term in office."

While a number of news outlets were quick to note that no faction garnered enough wins to secure an absolute majority, the biggest gains were made by Rouhani allies, who make up a undeniable plurality of incoming MPs.

An Associated Press tally of the final results noted that the "reformist and moderate list claimed 37 seats in Friday’s vote, giving them a total of 143 seats in the assembly — just two seats shy of 50 percent. They are followed by hard-liners, with 86 seats, and independents, with 61. Twenty-two hard-liners and nine independents won seats in the runoff."

A more tentative roundup in the Iranian media gave Rouhani supporters at least 121 seats, while conservative principlists, more of whom oppose the president's policies, won only 83. The remaining seats were said to be held by independents, that could tip the scales in either direction.

Former Iranian diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian suggested that "the real unprecedented development of this election" was "the huge gains" made by independents. "How these independents act," Mousavian, now a scholar at Princeton University, "will determine what direction the next parliament takes and what decisions it makes."

Mousavian also noted:
Many of the MPs who opposed the nuclear deal were voted out, particularly those who were most vitriolic in their attacks on Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. This is a clear sign that the majority of the Iranian people support the nuclear deal and that the majority of the new MPs will uphold it. This ensures that the deal will not be undermined from the Iranian side.
If one thing is certain, it's that Iranian politics and elections will remain unpredictable. And while the fate of Rouhani and his political allies in the years ahead, namely the 2017 presidential election, is anyone's guess, it probably shouldn't be Meir Javedanfar's.


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